Intense emotions from musical pleasure is called “frisson”
Music helps us celebrate and share in the joy. Music makes us cry, helps us think during study sessions, and tugs at our hearts with varied emotional responses. There’s a name for one kind of musical pleasure that induces millions of people to undergo “frisson“, (pronounced like “free-sawn”), a physical sensation that causes goosebumps and a sudden rush of emotional processing.
Frisson is French for “shiver” or “goosebumps.” It describes the intense emotional and physiological response some people experience while listening to music or witnessing other powerful stimuli, such as powerful speeches or awe-inspiring moments.
Frisson often manifests as goosebumps but can feel like chills or a tingling skin sensation. It also explains some of the popularity of Autonomous Sensory Merdian Response (ASMR)-style music designed to illicit a deep response from our brains.
Frisson is thought to be linked to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and with dopamine (a reward hormone released by the brain, usually during sex or other pleasurable experiences). The effects often enhance the overall emotional experience of music, making it more profound and memorable for individuals who experience it.
Music induces our fight or flight response amid intense emotional processing
Even if you’ve never experienced goosebumps while listening to music, almost everyone has a song that triggers strong emotional responses.
A first dance, a song playing in the background at a traumatic moment, or a song you heard while getting good or bad news are most common. Then, months or years later, you hear that song and are transported back to those memories. During traumatic memories, this evoke’s a fight or flight response in our brain — the same response as swerving to avoid an obstacle in traffic.
This is because music activates the brain’s limbic system, which handles emotions and triggers associations through the auditory cortex. The auditory cortex wires the brain’s electrical activity to other regions of our minds.
As brain activity areas communicate between each other, we slip into one of two broad mental states:
Theta activity is a specific frequency range of brainwaves during certain mental states, including deep relaxation, meditation, and creativity. Theta waves have a frequency range of 4 to 8 Hertz (cycles per second) and are typically associated with a relaxed, low-pleasure, and tired state, such as during light sleep or just before falling asleep.
Beta activity involves more intense emotions. Here, music can influence attention, focus, and alertness. Upbeat and stimulating music can enhance alertness and cognitive performance while calming or ambient music can promote relaxation and concentration. There are entire industries devoted to this neuroscience and brain research.
This is also why denser volume and higher volume:
- Creates a sense of energy and emotional intensity.
- Louder music increases arousal levels, leading to heightened attention and alertness.
- Activates brain regions associated with vigilance and wakefulness.
- Louder music can stimulate more extensive neural networks and evoke stronger physiological responses, such as increased heart rate or blood pressure.
Music is subjective, but the right mix can be deeply emotional
If you could measure electrical activity during a person’s wedding, you’d likely find the brain’s pleasure centers are lit up. This is no surprise: weddings are an event full of happiness, stress, and maybe a little sadness.
Researchers have developed a better understanding of how music at weddings, specifically, affect us through four broad areas:
- Personalization, by choosing music of value to them, it creates a stronger sense of meaning and nostalgia.
- Enhanced mood for guests and the wedding party.
- Social bonding for group singing, dancing, and even synchronized clapping — all innate human responses almost as old as the human mind itself.
- Cultural significance, reflecting our personalities and heritage. This, in turn, strengthens our bonds and eliminates structural differences during the bonding of two people or families.
This is why your choice of music at a funeral, a wedding, or any other event has so much value. It’s easy to dismiss as background noise or “something to do or think about,” but it’s near the pinnacle of high pleasure for our brains.
Our musical training has taught us how rewarding music can be. It can connect and inspire, but it also evokes a tingling sensation in millions of people ranking among our most intense emotions.